The city before the city: MOA’s newest exhibit

Vancouver is a blank canvas, a city in the making. However, there is nothing entirely new about Vancouver, at least not in the historical sense. Beneath its shimmery veneer of bright, energy-efficient lights and glass towers lies something. Before Vancouver, there was ćǝsnaɁǝm.

The society of ćǝsnaɁǝm is one steeped in culture. Just two years ago, several intact ancestral remains were uncovered at the site during an initial survey, as it was slated for development. Many protests ensued and a 200-day vigil was eventually held at the site by the Musqueam community, and their supporters, in hopes of stopping the development. These events surrounding the Musqueam site helped spur the highly anticipated three-part exhibition ćǝsnaɁǝm, the city before the city, set to open on January 25.

The exhibition, according to co-curators Jordan Wilson and Susan Rowley, comprises of three different "sub-exhibitions," one at the Museum of Vancouver, at the Musqueam Cultural Centre and at the Museum of Anthropology.

"They're all opening at the same time, and they're all related to ćǝsnaɁǝm but they address different areas or different themes in each exhibit," said Wilson. "In some ways they're stand alone exhibits ... but in other ways they're all connected, tied in one broader, larger story."

The three exhibits are collectively aimed at reversing the stereotype of Vancouver being a new city. Rowley explained that it is not right to think of Vancouver as having no history. "There was a long occupation of a very sophisticated group of communities that interacted and had a trade network and a governance system that has been here for thousands of years," said Rowley.

The exhibits are largely products of the Musqueam community itself. In choosing the items to be displayed, Wilson said that they worked with a "cultural advisory committee … comprised of six respected community leaders." They involved the Musqueam community as much as possible in the development of all three exhibits. Vancouver is built upon complexity -- Musqueam complexity.

Wilson and Rowley revealed that one of the main focuses in MOA's exhibit will be Musqueam worldview and value. The exhibit is built upon Musqueam teachings, which Rowley briefly described as "the things that you learn from when you're young until you're grown up." She elaborates that the teachings include ancestors, territory and the "oral history of people telling their lived stories." Teachings also encompass what can be called a deep history, the stories of how things came to be. Rowley added that the exhibit at MOA is "probably the most experimental in nature."

"People expect to see objects, or what community members would prefer everybody to refer to as the belongings, things that people used in the past," said Rowley. However, she noted that "there is none of those at the MOA exhibit."

One of the features that Rowley is particularly excited about is the tangible table, "a thing that allows people to actually touch plastic replicas of the pieces." One of their hopes with the tangible table is that it would create conversation, so that their stories add to "Larry Grant's … or Larissa or Mary Roberts."

Wilson and Rowley stress that the ćǝsnaɁǝm exhibit caters to everyone. Their aim is for people to interact with the Musqueam through the stories on the exhibit walls and the videos that will be present. They want people to get to know the story of the people from the city before the city.